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Lightfoot’s opposition stifles legislation to help McCormick Place

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been critical of a proposed restaurant tax exemption for sports stadiums.

Lakeside Center at McCormick Place
The above-ground portion of Lakeside Center would be demolished and replaced with greenspace under a proposal making its way through the Illinois legislature.
Sun-Times Media

With an expanded restaurant tax to benefit McCormick Place seemingly sailing toward legislative approval, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday issued a statement opposing the proposal that may have killed its chances for adoption.

The Illinois House Executive Committee had been scheduled to consider the matter Thursday night but adjourned its meeting without doing so. Before Lightfoot came out against the expanded tax, the Illinois Senate embraced it on a 44-6 vote Wednesday.

The state Legislature’s session is due to end Friday.

The proposal would expand the area within central Chicago where the 1% tax on restaurant meals and drinks would apply. The added revenue would help the convention complex borrow an additional $600 million to fund a new building and a partial demolition of the Lakeside Center.

But in a statement, Lightfoot’s office focused on a clause in the legislation that exempts sports stadiums such as Wrigley Field and the United Center from the tax.

“The mayor is committed to ensuring that Chicago’s convention industry remains vibrant, and supports making investments that will enhance McCormick Place and drive new economic growth for the City of Chicago,” the statement read. “However we are concerned about this proposal in its current form, specifically the exemption favoring large venue owners, whose customer base includes visitors and conventioneers, and the potential unintended consequences for small businesses in Chicago.”

A source close to the legislation said opposition had come from some Chicago restaurants and bars. The source said some lawmakers were angry about confusion over how the city’s convention complex was trying to raise revenue.

An earlier version of the bill would have imposed a $1-per-trip tax on ride-sharing services. That proposal was dropped late in the legislative session amid criticism from Uber and Lyft.

Lightfoot had said Wednesday that she was undecided about the expanded restaurant tax because she was just learning the details.

The legislation, Senate Bill 485, would extend the restaurant tax north to Irving Park Road, west to Western Avenue and as far south as 55th Street. The tax currently is collected from bars and restaurants within an area bounded by Diversey Avenue, Ashland Avenue and the Stevenson Expressway.

Lori Healey, CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which runs McCormick Place, told legislators the added borrowing power would let the agency improve its facilities to keep pace with other cities in the competition for major conventions.

The agency’s plan for a partial demolition of the Lakeside Center would lead to additional parkland along the lakefront. Lakeside Center, the oldest part of the McCormick Place complex, is widely considered to be outmoded for today’s conventions and meetings.

Senate President John Cullerton championed the legislation and worked to line up bipartisan support for it. Asked for a reaction to the mayor’s statement, Cullerton spokesman John Patterson wouldn’t say whether the bill is dead.

“The Senate president’s goal is to maintain and modernize a world-class convention center to benefit the city and state’s economy,” Patterson said. “He looks forward to working with Mayor Lightfoot to deliver on that shared goal.”

House sponsors of the McCormick Place legislation, state Reps. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) and Yehiel Kalish (D-Chicago), could not be reached for comment on the mayor’s opposition.

Healey said enlarging the district for the restaurant tax would allow her agency to collect $10 million per year on top of the tax’s current revenue of about $51 million a year. The legislation would raise the agency bonding authority by $600 million, to $3.45 billion.

The agency wants to construct a new convention hall over King Drive and connect it to those it already has.